The Internet's Perfect Storm

Blog Post created by jthibeault on Jan 15, 2015

If the beginning of 2015 heralds nothing else, it’s that one thing is for certain—the transition to a digital life is really happening. Not only is everything from watches to refrigerators getting connected, but we are also spending more of our time online and more of our time consuming digital content like online video, games, applications, and data via more and more devices.


Which means that we are also relying more heavily on the Internet. In fact, one could argue that without the Internet, this digital life wouldn’t really exist. The Internet is the glue that holds everything together, that facilitates both the delivery of digital content as well as the consumption of it.


But the Internet, like Earth’s natural resource, is finite. Although there is abundant bandwidth in the fiber optic cables and WiFi signals, the backbone infrastructure of the Internet—the servers and NICs, the routers, the switches—can only process and facilitate so much traffic. In fact, that’s truly where the Internet bottlenecks occur today (the links fill up). When a DDoS attack targets an organization within a peering fabric and subsequently floods all of the ports in dozens of networks (call this collateral damage), the result can be widespread outages that ripple throughout the Internet. Websites go dark. Requests get lost. When massive traffic surges hit the Internet simultaneously—FIFA 2014, Netflix, digital game downloads, web traffic—everything slows down. When the number of routes (over 512,000 to be exact in many older routers) exceed a router's capabilities, those routers start forgetting. Routes get dropped. And when all of this happens? Your user's connectivity to your website, game, or video goes out the window.


This might not be a problem if we weren’t continually pushing the envelope of Internet traffic, if we weren’t trying to make everything digital at a more and more frenetic pace, to stuff it through old NICs, switches, and routers. But we are. Just consider the following trends:

  • Improved Video Quality—we are moving from HD (which is anywhere from 1.5mbps to 5mbps) to 4K (which is anywhere from 5mbps to 15mbps or more). This won't happen overnight but give it a couple of years and 4K may dominate streaming video especially as consumers greedily snatch up 4K-compliant devices.
  • Growth of digital downloads—from apps to video games, the size of digital downloads is increasingly significantly. The recent release of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, for example, topped 50GBs.
  • Shift from linear to OTT and TVEDish’s recent announcement of a $20/month service for cord-cutters coupled with CBS, HBO, and others announcing they are going direct to consumers shows not only the shift towards IPTV/OTT, but consumer demand for online streaming services as well.
  • The Internet of Things—as more devices come online, they will share more and more data “in the background” exponentially increasing the number of routes as they communicate with each other
  • Webpage size—webpages are becoming increasingly large. In fact, as of July 2014, they top 1000 websites had surpassed 1600K (that’s 1.6mb).


What do these growing trends point to? A pace of “digitization” that far exceeds our ability to upgrade the Internet. It’s not easy to just swap an old, aging router, switch, or NIC with a new one. They have to be configured and tested. And not only that, but the Internet by nature is decentralized. There are so many organizations contributing to what we know as the Internet that it will require a Herculean effort to bring them all up to snuff for handling the coming storm. The worst part of these trends? They are all happening in parallel with their own agenda, all blind to the other, all blind to the bigger picture.


Will this happen in a few days? A few months? A few years? It's hard to put a date on paper but all of those trends are accelerating each month and few, if any, network operators are upgrading their equipment. In fact, we are already seeing the impact of too much digital traffic on the aging Internet infrastructure even as these trends gain momentum. Digital just keeps getting bigger.


The issue with this storm is that it won’t simply pass through. It’s not a cold front moving across the East Coast.


It’s more like an event horizon to which we are hurtling at breakneck speed and that, once reached, might be inescapable.